introducing readers to writers since 1995

May 19, 2005

What I've Learned Lately

by Ron Hogan

  • The other night I attended a Mediabistro seminar on memoir writing moderated by Susan Shapiro, who teaches quite a few journalism workshops for the organization. Her experts included Molly Jong-Fast, who recently published an account of her childhood called The Sex Doctors in the Basement, Simon Spotlight editor Ryan Harbage, and agents Ned Leavitt and Elizabeth Kaplan. The goal of the evening, Shapiro quipped, was to learn "how to finish your damn book and get it published," to which Harbage observed that if you buckle down and write the book, "the business will sort itself out." Kaplan pointed out that she wanted to see somebody's first 30 pages as evidence that they were talented enough to write the whole book, while Leavitt warned that in the proposal, "you don't ever write about what you're going to write" in the memoir, adding that from an agent's perspective, "If you're bored by the letter, you'll probably be bored by the book." (And Harbage added that he almost never buys first-time nonfiction of any kind, let alone memoirs, on proposals alone.)

    When Shapiro described her recent career as "a boring, mundane life where I sit around and masturbate with my past," Kaplan noted that "you may not need a dramatic story" to make a memoir work, "but you certainly need something to say." Molly (who I admit I've known for a while) had some insights into dealing with the reactions of family and "friends" to your writing, as well as the distinction between an "autobiographical novel" and a "fictionalized memoir." She also said that writers should think seriously about the market opportunities for commercial work, even if "everybody wants to be Jonathan Franzen." "Sure, they want to be Jonathan Franzen now," Harbage countered, "but nobody wants to spend eight years in a tiny Harlem studio typing blindfolded."

  • Last night I dropped by the New York Society Library to hear Ellen Feldman talk about why she decided to write The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, in which she imagines what would have happened to Peter van Pels if he'd survived and fulfilled his vow to reinvent himself, only to confront his repressed wartime experiences as Diary of a Young Girl becomes a literary, theatrical, and cinematic phenomenon. She spoke mainly about the controversies that really did surround the adaptation of the diary into a stage play, particularly Meyer Levin's long-running obsession with being seen as the deliverer of Anne's story to the masses.

  • Monday night, I was at McNally Robinson to hear Unbridled Books authors Edward Falco and Susann Cokal talk about the writing life and the positive aspects of being with a small, independent publisher. Falco observes that the rewards of writing come from the process itself, and that since "you can't control the publishing part," foregrounding it in your writerly life is just "a path to bitterness." He spoke frankly of his experience as a short story writer associated with university presses who tried to upgrade himself to more commercial houses with little success, and how Unbridled eventually wound up with his most recent stories (as well as some of his best earlier work) and even took a novel he'd written when he was trying to "break out" but had shelved--and didn't even necessarily want his new publisher to see at first. Cokal compared the experience of many authors to that of the miller's daughter in Rumpelstiltskin: tortured in spinning gold out of straw, with her final reward being marriage to her torturer. She pointed out, though, that life with Unbridled was completely different.

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